Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Monarchs--Migrating and Non-migrating

A recent visit to southern Florida has reignited my fascination with the monarch butterfly phenomenon. While visiting with family we noticed a number of beautiful monarchs feeding on flowers. One niece described the colorful monarch caterpillar on a species of milkweed outside her home. In our home residence of the upper midwest, the monarchs, their pupae, and larvae have long since vanished as of late October.   

The spectacular monarch phenomenon has captured the attention of many people, old and young. We refer to the marvelous saga of the four stage metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly and its astonishing migration journey to a specific forest site in Mexico to overwinter. When our son was a five-year old, we snapped pictures of him holding a monarch butterfly just emerged from a chrysalis suspended from a Mason jar lid. The monarch metamorphosis adventure has gripped members of our family for many years. Some details of the life of this astonishing animal are not as well known as its miraculous journey to a special Mexican forest. Observing monarchs in Florida has triggered our search for additional knowledge.

The monarch butterfly, Danaus Plexippus, has been familiar to scientists for centuries. Details of its migration patterns, however, were unknown and unexplained. Butterflies were observed migrating to an unknown destination in late summer and early autumn, but the trail vanished in places such as Texas. Where did they go? The answer was revealed to the world in the August 1976 National Geographic by author Fred Urquhart. The location was described only as a cypress/fir forest somewhere in Mexico. Urquhart would not reveal the exact destination of the millions of monarchs, but other researchers soon discovered the exact location from obscure geographical cues in the Geographic article. That site has been revered by naturalists in the interest of protecting the monarchs. The migrating insects have suffered from many natural and human-caused hazards over the years. In North America 2018 thus far has been favorable for a population upswing. Worldwide, lepidopterists do not categorize the monarch butterfly as endangered.

In year-round warm regions such as Florida, not all monarchs migrate. Populations in such places as Australia and New Zealand and even Spain may respond to colder weather but are not impelled by distinctive migratory urgency. Over centuries the migratory gene, one of many thousands of genetic entities, has adapted and is expressed in different ways according to different circumstances. The Florida monarchs have lost their migratory capability but they are still the identical species—Danaus Plexippus. 

Those monarchs which have not lost their direction finding capability have been discovered to possess sensitivity to light and different sun angles as well as magnetic fields of the Earth. Do light and magnetic fields offer a sufficient reductionist explanation of monarch migration, especially when their large scale migration concludes at a mere pinpoint location on the planet? Reductionism is a term for the scientific process whereby complex phenomena are explained by simpler ones. For example, Google Dictionary defines reductionism as follows: “The practice of analyzing a complex phenomenon in terms of phenomena that are held to represent a simpler or more fundamental level, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.” The question remains how light and magnetism provide a sufficient explanation, not merely a sufficient description of factors involved in the process. The monarch butterfly’s use of their antennae to follow the sun during their search for an overwintering site is explanatory up to a point. But it is primarily descriptive, as is their reliance on Earth’s magnetic field to find their way to the overwintering site. This post does not begin to explain how light and planetary magnetism guide monarchs to their wintering destination.

Whether we address the uniqueness of monarch butterfly behavior or the uniqueness of multiple thousands of other living species on our planet, we marvel in devotion to the omnipotent Creator. He has programmed easily recognized design features in all of the millions of Earth’s species. In addition God has programmed genetic adaptability within our DNA.  Wonders of adaptability extend far beyond the incredible structure and code of the DNA molecule. Secrets of gene expression have been revealed, for instance, but many genetic wonders have yet to be discovered and disclosed. Secrets of consciousness, “the most mysterious phenomenon in the universe,” relate to the very essence of God, the Creator. Perhaps we will never discover these secrets this side of eternity.

Readers may understand our science/faith blog’s emphasis on monarchs during the past ten years in terms of comprehending one of God’s great creative ideas. For those interested, we link all 14 past posts on monarch butterflies since 2008 here:



Monday, October 22, 2018

Mystery of Unbelief

Individual belief in the existence of God, the reality of God as the Creator of All Things, and his influence on our value system and behavior are a subjective matter. That is to say, the matter of belief, a complex subject in itself, is dependent upon and intrinsic to the individual in ways that are often undiscoverable to others and to themselves. Subjectivity and self-consciousness are related. Both are mysterious qualities of human experience.

Many parents or mentors are baffled when their young people drift away from Christian belief, sometimes openly avowing agnosticism or even atheism. “Where did we go wrong?” they ask. Many adult Christians who taught young people in Sunday School classes or supervised youth groups in their churches are startled by the attrition. Desertion of Christian beliefs and values as young people progress from middle school to high school and eventually to college is of increasing concern to parents and church leaders.

Since 1970 there has been a startling growth in people identifying themselves as “nones,” or “religiously unaffiliated.” By one metric the “nones” now account for 20% of the population, up from 5% in the past several decades. Not all of the “nones” would self-categorize as atheists. One phrase heard with increasing frequency from the “nones” is “organized religion.” The term is often an expression of disapproval.

Many researchers are discovering purported reasons for unbelief. Justification for unbelief falls along a wide spectrum: Many people, regardless of their age, claim their religious experience is irrelevant, boring, uninteresting, unhelpful, or irrational. Objectively, this evaluation may not be reasonable. Subjectively, however, such appraisals need no defense because personal opinions, preferences, feelings, or desires rule, especially in our day when individualism and being ourselves is a highly valued personal characteristic.

Reasons to Believe founder and president, Dr. Hugh Ross, in a recent ministry letter touched upon a comment offered by one of his volunteers—his young teenaged grandson recently announced that he did not believe in God because “there was no evidence.” That young person’s statement might be categorized as a subjective rather than an objective utterance. The objective truth of God’s existence remains. Although no one has evidence for the existence of God by actually seeing him, there are logical evidences for the existence of God. For example, the Kalam Cosmological Argument popularized by William Lane Craig points to the existence of God. 

More persuasive evidences of God exist in the characteristics of the universe itself—a universe created by God. Hugh Ross’s organization presents explicit evidential reasons for believing in God. Offering evidence of God’s work in the creation is a hallmark of the Reasons to Believe ministry. Ross’s most recent volume, Always Be Ready, (2018, RTB Press), fulfills the exhortation of I Peter 3:15, “…Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess (NET).

Hugh Ross has written many apologetic volumes citing the unique characteristics of our physical universe as evidence of the Creator’s work, and by extension, evidence of the Creator’s existence. In his most recent volume, Always Be Ready, Ross stresses our Christian responsibility to be ready to defend our faith and present reasons for it. He devotes only one chapter to formal scientific content with the disclaimer, “The book…barely (if at all) resembles any of the other books I’ve written to date. Only one chapter, the one that follows this one, provides scientific content readers have come to expect from me. Still, even this content comes to you in an unusually simplified, summarized form.”

Ross follows with a “simplified, summarized” chapter of eleven pages in which he devotes his skills to outlining some of the arguments he elaborates upon in hundreds of pages in his older volumes. These are the topics he summarizes: (1) cosmic origin and features (2) fine tuning evidence (3) life’s origin and advance, and (4) humanity’s origin. It is our prayer that detailed study of the topics listed above may provide spiritual truth seekers evidence of God’s existence and of his works in Creation. In this way we may replace subjective disbelief with objective belief in the God of Creation.      



Thursday, October 18, 2018

Trails of Knowledge

Our previous post entitled “Trail Hiking Science” did not offer a complete account of the potential for knowledge acquisition beyond instructive experiences on the trail. We all enjoy the wonderful sights and sounds of nature and the physical benefits we experience on trail venues. Discovery of deeper, more profound truths concerning the beauty and origin of the living plants and animals we discover, how they function, how they adapt to their surroundings, and the workings of the matter and energy systems in which they exist—these discoveries await us. Trail hikes are merely the prelude to a grand symphony.

In the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents, genetic knowledge was but a small fraction of what bioscientists have discovered since 1950. Secrets of structure of the DNA molecule, the carrier of genetic information, and the related RNA molecule were a mystery, although the existence of these molecules had been known. Generally, the functions of DNA and RNA were perceived to be related to genetic heritage. During the 1950s the structure of DNA was revealed and In the 1960s the workings of the protein producing code intrinsic to the DNA molecule were revealed. This became known as the genetic code by which the correct proteins that compose all living things are synthesized. In a living human we are talking about 100,000 or more different proteins.

After Francis Crick, molecular biologist, made his ground-breaking discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s, he articulated the principle route of information transfer in biology. He called it the “Central Dogma” of biology. We may remember using code games when we were children: simple or complex information is communicated from one entity to another. In the case of reproduction and maintenance of life, it is imperative that a coherent system of information transfer is effective. The Central Dogma information transfer proceeds in this way: DNA —>RNA—>Proteins. DNA “codes” for thousands of specific proteins.

The Central Dogma of molecular biology has been refined since Crick first proposed it. Basically the fundamentally true “dogma” is still in effect, but important supplements have been discovered such as knowledge of gene expression, epigenetics, and prions. The axiom ”For every rule there is an exception” may hold in this instance.

Many senior citizens have observed a sea change in the study of biology in their lifetimes. The study has transitioned from an emphasis on organ systems and taxonomy to molecular biology and science process. Personal recollections of high school and college biology offerings affirm this statement. We were immersed in a movement to enhance science offerings in order to close the perceived gap of Soviet science superiority following the launch of Sputnik in 1957. High School biology and other science courses reflected this change in emphasis. Our schools have been engaged in curriculum revisions and government sponsored catch-up programs in the interest of enhancing science literacy ever since. At present there are other nations perceived to be superior in their science education.

One outcome of the Sputnik phenomenon was to energetically infuse evolutionary concepts into school curricula. We believe evolutionary hypotheses and theory should be taught along with tenets of divine intelligent design and creationism in order that each belief could be compared and tested. In nearly 70 years since the discovery of DNA structure and its inherent genetic code, our public schools, supported by court decisions, have turned more strongly toward the paradigm that science deals only in natural phenomena. Theological concepts and discussions are not permitted in public science classrooms.

Enlarging on the desirability of outdoor activities such as trail hiking, we propose that the value of hiking is increased by knowledge of startling discoveries in topics of genetics and environment in general since the mid-1950s. In like manner, the value of classroom-based education would be enhanced by a more active outdoor experience. To their credit, many schools provide formal opportunities for curriculum related field experiences. Our lament relates to the apparent truth that author Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” volume of a decade ago (see our previous post) expresses an unhappy fact: Many young people are deficient in outdoor experiences, foregoing opportunities for spiritual growth and enrichment.      


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Trail Hiker Science

Our in-depth understanding of the physical world, including features of our environment we are able to see, touch, hear, smell, and taste, begins with first hand observation. Included in the physical world are living things and the energy dimensions in which life and matter exist. What better method exists for gaining knowledge and appreciation of the physical world than actually placing ourselves at the scene of action? Welcome, enthusiastic explorers and hikers!   

Christmas 1968 I presented a volume to my uncle entitled “The Year Outdoors” with my personal inscription “…in memory of many hours of sharing.” That uncle, only eleven years my senior, modeled for me a love of nature and the outdoors. He lived on the next-door farm located a few stone throws away from my home. My childhood residence next to that farm provided abundant learning opportunities. For many years we have recounted stories of shared thrills on that 150 acre farm which had meadows, forest, a creek running through it, cropland venues, a large barn for storage of hay, silage, and grain, a wintertime refuge for the farm animals I came to love, and adventure opportunities almost too numerous to count.

Concurrent with my own farm adventures in New York State, a Sussex County New Jersey classroom teacher, Eva Rodimer, was winding down a 50-year career in 1963. She had been a teacher from 1913 to 1963, having begun in a one room schoolhouse when she was not yet nineteen years old. As her retirement approached in 1963, a reporter from the New Jersey Herald opined that Rodimer was “…the youngest 67-year-old teacher extant.” Her annual salary in 1913 was $405.00. Rodimer writes in her preface that she “…roamed the wooded uplands and the meadows on my father’s farm, seeking the first flowers and the first birds of springtime.” In the remaining 294 pages she details hundreds of observations of animals, plants, and even meteorological and astronomical phenomena. Her observations and descriptions of natural beauty and living specimens of northwest New Jersey are unmatched.

Fast-forward to a more contemporary personal experience: Midway through my tenure as science educator, my principal offered a unique noon-time administrative proposal for our award-winning middle school—the one hour school lunch period must be re-imagined, he stated. Before the days of formal classroom computer instruction, there was more time available during our school day. Therefore, mini-courses were offered  with the individual talents and interests of ALL students and teachers foremost. With that in mind, I offered “Trail Hiking,” partly because I possessed the legal qualifications to drive a school bus, and partly because I was enamored by outdoor experiences.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, our trail hiking mini-course appealed to dozens of young people in our school. It was one of at least two dozen different courses offered. The mini-course/lunch time block lasted one hour. Students ate lunch on the bus, then disembarked to hike a nearby trail for upwards of 45 minutes. Students benefitted in multiple ways, not the least of which was bouncing off trees and each other to help dissipate their pent-up energy as well as make discoveries of outdoor marvels in and near the Morristown National Historical Park. Ours was a pubic school; therefore, spiritual lessons were not explicitly taught but intuitional values lessons abounded.

When I retired from classroom instruction, there was more personal time to hike and explore. Seldom did I encounter young people hiking or exploring the fields and parks, even on Saturdays or during summer vacation time. This observation is not meant to disparage organized sports. Perhaps, however, it is a commentary on pervasive social media and its negative effects on both young and old.

We illustrate our point with an example of journalist Richard Louv’s popular 2008 volume, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.” Louv decries the reality that children “…don’t hike, don’t play in their backyards, don’t climb trees, don’t build tree houses, catch frogs, imprison fireflies in Mason jars, or know the difference between Mickey Mouse and a dusky-footed wood rat.” In 2009 our local newspaper highlighted a boy named Noah and referred to him as the “anti-video game kid” who initiated numerous neighborhood outdoor hiking activities and games for his peers. Perhaps fifty years ago such a boy would not be singled out in a newspaper article as an example of the unusual or exceptional.

Our son has captured many Monarch butterfly eggs and larvae and instructed his children on appropriate ways to proceed to the chrysalis and adult stage before releasing them to produce a new generation and sending them on their way to a specific Mexican forest to overwinter. Recently he took his 6-year old daughter to southeast Iowa for the annual “Geode Fest.” The activity entailed a fairly long trek down a stream with boots. What better way to trigger a sense of the work of the divine Creator than to expose children and adults to thousands of wonders in our world?

In our day of political factionalism, we are encouraged by the bipartisan House of Representatives passage of the “Every Kid Outdoors Act” (H.R. 3186). Its provision administers a pass program to provide free entry for fourth graders and their families to visit our national public lands, waters, and shores. The bill awaits Senate approval.      




Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Insect Profusion

Earth inhabitants in the civilized world are intent on insulating themselves from the presence of insects. When we are successful, we consider ourselves to have succeeded in one of our most urgent comfort quests. Who wants to be plagued by insects intruding into our homes, at our picnics, or worse, making their presence felt at our social gatherings such as a formal outdoor wedding?

Of the 35 phyla (basic “body plans”) of animals recognized by bioscientists, five or six are the most frequently occurring and familiar life forms on Earth. We will discuss only three: chordates, mollusks, and arthropods. Chordates include vertebrates which comprise the most well-known classes in the phylum: Mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. There are about 50,000 vertebrate species (various sources publish different estimates). Named mollusk species belong to another phylum somewhat more numerous than the chordate phylum—upwards of 100,000 species catalogued. Familiar mollusk classes are octopus and squid (cephalopods), snails (gastropods), and clams and scallops (bivalves) to name a few. 

Ranking far above chordates and mollusks, however, the arthropod phylum comprises the greatest number of catalogued species of any animal phylum on the planet. Insects, spiders, and crustaceans are familiar arthropods. 80% of arthropods are insects which include an incredible 1.2 million different catalogued species but several times that number await attribution.

84% of all animal species on our planet are arthropods, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica. Of all arthropods, 90% are insects and a particular order of insects—beetles—are the most numerous insect species on Earth. Beetles, therefore, comprise 25% of all animal life forms on earth by species count. Some may judge such statistics overwhelming. One writer posted his incredible estimate that 200 million insects exist for every human on Earth. Another guess concerning insect populations is even more breathtaking: 1.4 billion insects for every human on Earth. By combined weight insects may outweigh humans by a factor of 70. Of course, many scientists speculate with their personal estimates. Earth is not widely known as “the World of Insects,” but based on information above, that case may be justifiably made.

The diversity, physical beauty, design, and function of even our most common neighborhood insects is overwhelming. Are we able to overcome our common fear and revulsion of “bugs” and focus on the positive role of arthropods in class insecta? Do we appreciate the integral part played by insects in planetary ecology?

Ants are likely the most common insect on earth. Allowing for the difficulty of estimating actual numbers, we quote two different scientific estimates of their population—between 100 and 10,000 trillion in the 12,000 formally catalogued ant species and many not yet identified and catalogued. After allowing for their pesky presence at our picnics and the nuisance of ants in our kitchens, we yield to entomologists’ praise of manifold ant species’ benefits for humans. In Proverbs 6 even Solomon was impressed with their desirable work ethic in his famous appeal to “Consider the ant.” Here is our complete post by that title from September 2008:

“The Bible is not a textbook on science, but a well known passage in Proverbs 6:6-8 is an accurate and insightful commentary on the ant, probably the world’s most important insect. Without ants, some entire ecosystems would be destroyed. Many of the roughly 10,000 ant species already identified have unique behaviors which inspire awe, respect, and even admiration. The nuisance factor many associate with ants in everyday life might be more easily overlooked with a proper knowledge of what these creatures accomplish. We could make similar statements about many other insects.

“Young children possess an inherent fascination with insects. This summer, two arenas of excitement developed for our grandchildren just a few steps from our front door. Little black ants were excavating tunnels and piling mounds of soil particles next to the entrances of their underground passages and caverns. Hundreds of ants came and went, following their scent trails, intently engaged in their mysterious activities. Nearby, another scenario as we watched our “pet” digger wasp provisioning her underground home with anesthetized grasshoppers and katydids for her larvae-to-be. After the wasp lost its unease with our presence, we watched it efficiently drag its prey into the opening and alternately fill and re-excavate its tunnel, part of its many genetically programmed activities.

“Ants are astonishingly successful members of the insect world. In their complex society, all members of the colony remain frantically busy caring for their young, finding various foods, aerating, enriching, and draining the soil, and recycling dead material. Descriptions of the unusual habits of some specialized ant species would fill multiple chapters in an adventure book. One encyclopedic description claims ants enable us to ‘learn much about diligence, efficiency, sacrifice, loyalty, and teamwork.’

“What does Proverbs 6 tell us about the ant? Various Bible translations of this passage use the ant to counsel the sluggard, the slothful, and the lazy. Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation pleads ‘You lazy fool, look at the ant. Watch it closely; let it teach you a thing or two. Nobody has to tell it what to do. All summer it stores up food; at harvest it stockpiles provisions.’ This is a scripture of enormous insight. Its lessons apply not only to the lazy, but they also serve as a model of successful living for everyone.”